Richard Aldington’s New Directions; Carroll Carstairs’ Improbable Password

Richard Aldington has been home on leave, and busy–not so much with his new officer’s identity as with the early stages of an extramarital affair with Dorothy Yorke, a young member of the circle now centered on D.H. Lawrence and H.D., Aldington’s wife. Aldington is writing quite a bit, as well, poems which reflect not only his profound self regard and far shallower talent but also the doubly overheated atmosphere of a soldier home on leave and a man in the grips of a new sexual passion. Today, a century back, he sent some of the poems–not war poems, and not particularly modernist, but quite sexually explicit–to his American patroness and publisher, Amy Lowell. And then there is the matter of last year’s war poems, a few of which we have looked at here…

2 January 1918
44 Mecklenburgh Square,
London, England.

My dear Amy,

Hilda sent me on your charming letter this morning and I was most happy to get it. We had your cheery cable on Christmas day—I was at home—and were delighted that you had thought of us. After I passed my examinations I had nearly a month’s leave. It was a wonderful time, so much was compressed into those few weeks. It was marvellous after those other days.

I have my commission now and am expecting to be back in the trenches in a month or six weeks. So probably I’ll be gone before I can hear from you again. I will try and send you just a word before I go. Unhappily, I feel I mustn’t send you any details about my military life—the rules are very stringent and I don’t want to say anything I shouldn’t…

I’m afraid that’s all I can tell you—after the war I’ll spin you more soldier’s yarns than you’ll care to hear!

I am thinking of collecting all my war poems—I have about 60 or 70—into a book. Do you think the U.S.A. would care for them? They are not popular—I mean they are bitter, anguish-stricken, realistic, not like Brooke or Noyes or anybody like that. They are stern truth, and I have hesitated about publishing them…

There is a lot of gamesmanship here. New officers may be more inclined to follow the letter of the law, but his zealous secrecy about not much at all (he’s not even in France) should set Lowell’s eyes rolling, and his aw-shucks “hesitations” as well.

Now for the name-dropping:

I am translating Anacreon in camp—I find I can’t do really good work in a camp, so I am doing these light Greek things, just to keep the “feel” of literature. Great poetry—Shelley and Euripides and Dante—moves me so terribly that I cannot bear it. I feel choked. For this reason I had to give up those burning passionate poems of Meleager. They left me unnerved & unstrung. I am reading a little Dante, but only a very, very little each day—it exhausts me with emotion. He understands so wonderfully the piercing passion of love—the mystic exaltation which is prolonged beyond the contact of the flesh. Do you remember the two cantos towards the end of the Purgatorio where he  meets Bia after those years of absence and where Virgil leaves him? It seems to me to put most modern poetry utterly out of count. It is like Plato’s Symposium, but more tortured, more like ourselves in its bitterness & intensity.

Aldington has been very busy, and much of this–the poems as well as the translations–will soon be published. But his poems lately have been very unlike his earlier ones, at once besotted hand-wavingly dramatic in a manner not quite befitting the cerebral Modernism favored by Lowell. A single stanza of a poem written this month, a century back, should give the rough idea:

Go your ways, you women, pass and forget us,
We are sick of blood, of the taste and sight of it;
Go now to those who bleed not and to the old men,
They will give you beautiful love in answer!
But we, we are alone, we are desolate,
Thinning the blood of our brothers with weeping,
Crying for our brothers, the men we fought with,
Crying out, mourning them, alone with our dead ones;
Praying that our eyes may be blinded
Lest we go mad in a world of scarlet,
Dripping, oozing from the veins of our brothers.

Faced with this, as well as poems clearly about Aldington’s affair with Yorke, Lowell will take the unusual step of writing to H.D. (i.e. Aldington’s wife Hilda Doolittle) to ask her advice…


And after all that, here is a very strange little anecdote from Carrol Carstairs

I was left behind until the new unit had taken over the billets and found them “all correct.”

It was dark when I left for Arras. Nothing moved on the road. I had to walk—five or six or seven miles? A frequent look over my shoulder as I stumbled on revealed nothing. I moved on automatically, breathing hard and painfully. I would scarcely know when I had reached Arras. There wouldn’t be many lights. Interminable! How could anything take so long. What? Was I asleep? Where am I? Oh, yes, Arras. I must get to Arras. God, but I feel groggy.

Outlying houses, like stragglers, appeared in the gloom, and then I was in Arras itself, walking the streets of a town empty of life but for a private soldier or two. It stood only partially destroyed, but the Hotel de Ville with its fine Gothic façade and the cathedral were among the ruins. I don’t know why I thought of this as I sought Battalion Headquarters. The word periwinkle also suddenly occurred without my associating the name with its meaning.

“Periwinkle!” I said out loud. “Periwinkle!” I announced as I entered the officers’ mess.

“Periwinkle?” questioned Alec Agar-Robartes.

“Well, possibly not,” I replied. . . .[1]


References and Footnotes

  1. A Generation Missing, 148-9. According to a note on page 235, this was tonight/tomorrow, a century back.

Ivor Gurney in a Nutshell; Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon Eat, Drink, and Mock Merrily; Herbert Read the Very Model of the Modernist Company Commander

A day, today, of striking contrasts. First, Marion Scott seems to have asked Ivor Gurney for some biographical details, presumably for some task related to the publication of his Severn and Somme, which she has single-handedly seen into the press. He responded with a charmingly inexact potted bio:

26 October 1917

Details of the Life and Crimes of the private named Gurney.

Gloucester Cathedral 1900…

Head boy sometime

I have forgotten when I got the Scholarship (I have asked Mrs Hunt to tell you.)
Stanford — Composition
Mr Waddington (whom I like very much) for Counterpoint…

Also the Westminster Board.

Mr Sharpe (a good man) for Piano…

Centre-forward for Kings School

Owner of the “Dorothy” (defunct)

2nd best batting average
3rd best bowling — last term of school

crack platoon shot July 1917

Author of “Severn and Somme”
and a further unborn imbecility.

Army Feb. 9th (?) 1915

Proficiency pay. C[onfined to].B[arracks]. every now and then. Sang Widdecombe Fair
blushingly at Albert Nov: 1916

Wounded Good Friday night — or rather on the Sat:
Gassed (?) at Ypres.[1]


A few miles away in Edinburgh, Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon spent the day together. It was something of a last hurrah,[2] since Owen’s Medical Board–not to mention Sassoon’s make-up Board–is looming on the horizon. But it was a low-key last hurrah, centered on two things dear to combat soldiers: food and laughter. Owen will write, tomorrow:

I am so happy with Sassoon. Spent all day with him yesterday. Breakfast, Lunch, Tea & Dinner, chiefly at the Conservative Club…[3]

Sassoon provided the chief amusement:

After a good dinner and a bottle of noble Burgundy had put us in good spirits, I produced a volume of portentously over-elaborate verse, recently sent me by the author. From this I began to read extracts—a cursory inspection having assured me that he would find them amusing.

The extracts included bizarrely eccentric lines such as

When Captain Cook first sniff’d the wattle
And love Columbus’d Aristotle…

Which left Owen “surrendering to convulsions of mirth in a large leather-covered armchair.” Before joining Owen in this surrender, Sassoon managed to get as far as:

What cassock’d misanthrope
Hawking peace-canticles for glory-gain,
Hymns from his rostrum’d height th’epopt of Hate?

O is it true I have become
This gourd, this gothic vacuum?[4]

Very bad poetry is funny, it’s true…


Herbert Read, however, is a serious-minded Modernist, and, in today’s letter to Evelyn Roff, he writes… well, perhaps from the heart, perhaps to impress, perhaps some of both. But he certainly becomes the first poet here to quote an abstract contemporary poem in lieu of describing what his latest tour in the line was like–in lieu of Dante, Bunyan,  or the Bible. It’s also, for us, a remote crossing of paths: the poem he quotes–almost accurately–is by the important Modernist H.D., wife of Richard Aldington (and current hostess of D.H. Lawrence).

We have had a terrible time–the worst I have ever experienced (and I’m getting quite an old soldier now). Life has never seemed quite so cheap nor nature so mutilated. I won’t paint the horrors to you. Some day I think I will, generally and for the public benefit.

This casual-but-major statement of intent, with Read’s habitual mix of studied rationality stretched thin over his ambition, is especially noteworthy if we follow his train of thought. It makes very good sense, of course, to go from horror to the hope of writing to the question of what writing the war might accomplish… which would be some sort of attempt to bridge–or at least signal across–the yawning gulf that separates combat veterans from civilians. Very good sense: but I feel as if we don’t often see these two thoughts nakedly next to each other, and in this order. Sassoon feels the gulf and then writes in anger and in ways which are neither didactic nor conciliatory; Read wants to write, and then thinks of the gulf…

I was thoroughly ‘fed up’ with the attitude of most of the people I met on leave–especially the Londoners. They simply have no conception whatever of what war is really like and don’t seem concerned about it at all. They are much more troubled about a few paltry air raids. They raise a sentimental scream about one or two babies killed when every day out here hundreds of the very finest manhood ‘go west’.

…and then he comes back to the anger. This we saw as long ago as 1915, but it is getting worse.

And yet Read pulls up short again, and turns, doing an unusual sort of somersault back over the gulf. He will describe war, but he will use the words of a civilian and a woman–a woman moreover in a position analogous to the letter’s addressee: both are women in England with long experience in waiting for the next letter, and fearing the next telegram.

Of course, everyday events are apt to become rather monotonous. . . . but if the daily horror might accumulate we should have such a fund of revulsion as would make the world cry ‘enough!’ So sometimes I wonder if it is a sacred duty after all ‘to paint the horrors’. This reminds me of a poem I’ll quote–by one of our moderns and a woman at that.

Another life holds what this lacks,
a sea, unmoving, quiet—
not forcing our strength
to rise to it, beat on beat—
a stretch of sand,
no garden beyond, strangling
with its myrrhlilies—
a hill not set with black violets
but stones, stones, bare rocks,
dwarf-trees, twisted, no beauty
to distract—to crowd
madness upon madness.

Only a still place
and perhaps some outer horror
some hideousness to stamp beauty,
a mark
on our hearts.


Perhaps the quotation has too much of the gesture about it–“See, I read women!”–but it’s not impossible to read it as whole sincere. This is a novel way of reaching out to Roff, across the gulf, and implying that she is to be considered an honorary combatant, able to understand something of its horror and not get hysterical about “a few paltry air raids.” And even if it is working hard to emphasize their connection, it’s not a bad quotation at all: the poem, with its horror and ruinscape and madness, is quite a good fit for the Salient in 1917. Which, I suppose, could be said of a lot of Modernist poetry, especially for those readers who might find the Christian framework of the old standby descriptions of Hell or the Slough of Despond off-putting…

In any event, Read is not just the impressively intellectual and in-touch boyfriend, here: he is also, to a surprising degree, given the emphasis on accumulating horrors, a happy warrior. This is not as uncommon a combination as we might think–Sassoon is the most obvious analogue, of course, but we might also remember gentle Roland Leighton‘s thirst for a decoration–and Read should, even in a somewhat preening letter, be given credit for facing up to the apparent contradiction.

War is horrible, but he’s enjoying himself; it’s more than can be borne, but he’s bearing it quite well:

My military progress continues… I  am now commanding a company… I thoroughly enjoy my despotism… I have got a fine lot of lads though they are fastly decreasing in numbers… they are a gallant crew: we have more decorations in our company than in any other in the battalion. I got four Military Medals today out of seven for the battalion. And damn proud of it we all are…

My subalterns (notice the ‘my’–sort of possessive pride) are quite a good lot…

The day grows long, so instead of transcribing the characters-of-the-company piece which closes the letter, I will merely summarize his band of brothers. They are much what we would expect: the quiet old guy of thirty or so; the sturdy, pretty-eyed optimist; the boastful but efficient sportsman; and, most promising, the “young rake of the cockney variety”…[5]


References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters, 226-7.
  2. But not as much as Sassoon remembers it to be, since he seems to confuse/conflate two memories, including aspects of their next evening out in this description, or vice versa...
  3. Collected Letters, 503.
  4. Siegfried’s Journey, 64-65. See also Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, 278-9. The unfortunate author was one Aylmer Strong; Sassoon presented Owen with the volume.
  5. The Contrary Experience, 112-14.

Robert Graves in Love, D.H. Lawrence on the Run

Today we have only a few very scattered updates, and all but one of them are to some extent either dark or dismal.


In Cork, Frederic Manning was released from the hospital where he has been recovering from symptoms of a breakdown related to his alcoholism (as well as his experiences on the Somme, surely). A sympathetic Medical Board has allowed him to resume “light duty” and to keep his commission…


In a field hospital in Belgium, Henry Feilding, Lady Dorothie‘s elder brother, died of wounds sustained two days ago…


In Cornwall, the cottage of D.H. Lawrence was raided and searched by the police. As a military-age man not in uniform, (Lawrence had a medical exemption) who did not hide his contempt for the war, Lawrence was a target of scorn and suspicion. It did not help that they lived on the sea, near where U-boats had recently sunk several British ships–or that Frieda Lawrence had been born Frieda Freiin von Richthofen, a distant cousin of the Red Baron. The Lawrences and their friends behaved, on principle, like civilized, open-minded, free-spoken people, and thus fell quickly afoul of the locals. Continuing to correspond with German family and to speak against the war, despite “a mounting campaign of intimidation,” they seem to have hoped for better from an ostensibly liberal society, even in wartime.

The police will return, bearing with them “an order under the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA): they had three days to leave Cornwall and must not travel to coastal or other protected (‘Class 2’) areas; within twenty-four hours of finding a new
residence, they must report to a police station. No appeal was allowed.”

The couple were “virtually penniless” and returned to London in some despair of finding a refuge from a cruelly militarized and intolerant society. After some time adrift, however, they will be taken in by Hilda Doolittle, the poet H.D., Richard Aldington‘s wife.[1]


But life goes on, and there is also young love to be celebrated, today! Another poet whose has had trouble because of his German connections (but who silenced them with combat service and wound stripes), Robert Von Ranke Graves, is currently in London–or, to be precise, in Wimbledon–spending his latest “last” leave with his family. (Graves’s Sassoon-saving interlude at the depot near Liverpool is over, and, while his damaged lung should keep him from active duty in France, he expects to be sent abroad again soon.)

Except that Graves went into London proper, today, a century back, to visit Nancy Nicholson, and missed the last train back…[2]


References and Footnotes

  1. Whelpton, Poet, Soldier, Lover, 158.
  2. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 183.

Isaac Rosenberg, Strained and Weak; F.S. Flint is Read (by Richard Aldington) and Freely Given (by Ford Madox Hueffer)

Today is a day of literary letters, headed back across the channel in loose formation, nodding to each other in terse recognition, and speeding their pleas to the same few destinations. First, a wilting off-shoot of the Georgian/Dymock set–and after him the Modernists.

Isaac Rosenberg had written to Gordon Bottomley in early January about his plans–lousy and otherwise–and his reading.  He was fairly chipper, then, even about his miseries: “I fancy it was a touch of the flue… I wonder if Aeschylus as a private in the army was bothered as I am by lice.” Less so, in a letter postmarked today, a century back:

Dear Mr Bottomley

Your letters always give me a strange and large pleasure; and I shall never think I have written poetry in vain, since it has brought your friendliness in my way. Now, feeling as I am, castaway and used up, you don’t know what a letter like yours is to me. Ever since Nov, when we first started on our long marches, I have felt weak; but it seems to be some inscrutable mysterious quality of weakness that defies all doctors… I believe I have strained my abdomen in some way…[1]

Still, the letter included a “sketch” of “Louse Hunting,” and all was not as dark as Rosenberg’s mood. Not long ago Eddie Marsh had written–informally, of course–to Rosenberg’s adjutant, with the result that he will be transferred, probably at some point this month, from the “works” battalion to a less labor-intensive job in a trench mortar unit.[2]


It’s a small literary world: Bottomley is good friends with Edward Thomas and central to the now far-flung Dymock crew. Rupert Brooke was the strongest connection between Dymock and the Georgian Anthology, but Bottomley and de la Mare are others, and even if Thomas has avoided Marsh’s influence they are known to each other. And Marsh, of course, is not intervening lightly in Rosenberg’s military career–he was also a crucial early patron. Between Bottomley and Marsh there are few promising young writers of somewhat traditional verse more than one friendly letter away.

But oh yes–there are other literary microcosmoi, and with our advantage of historical vantage, we know that another small world considering au courant and modern will grab the stage and boot Georgian Poetry into the footlights. Or footnotes.

The Modernists, grouped around a few small journals,[3] see the Georgians more as almost indecently exposed targets of opportunity, prim ladies showing a touch of ankle while the Imagists are stripping to their all togethers to describe. Although Richard Aldington ceded his editorial post at The Egoist to his wife, H.D., when he went for a soldier, he still knows who and what to read.

Yesterday, a century back, Aldington wrote to F.S. Flint, his good friend and fellow subaltern in the Modernist enterprise; today, the august Ford Madox Hueffer, something of an elder statesman among the young ruffians (how’s that?) aimed a missive at the same target. We may set a record, today, for box-barrage-style name-dropping.

Although Aldington could hardly be more unlike his fellow poetical footslogger Ivor Gurney in either personality or poetic  predilection–Gurney has made a literal Dymock pilgrimage–the two rising poets and private soldiers offer the same criterion for poetic appreciation: is it pack-worthy?

My dear Franky,

I carried your poem and Manning’s poems in my pack for I know not how many kilometres–what more devotion to
literature can you ask? I am immensely pleased by your poem, & as I wrote to H.D., feel that it justifies amply your months of silence… Certainly, compel Monro to print the poem in a chap-book & add any “dug-outs” you have…

The horrid thought strikes me that, if U.S. goes to war, Amy will insist on writing and publishing patriotic verse. This must be barred strenuously–we have foreborn to intrude our nationalism, to “let wrath embitter the sweet mouth of song”; so must she. I have sent H.D. a few scraps of vers libre put down from time to time recently. They may not be much good, for I think they are lazy due to a state of intoxication derived from the happy discovery that one can boil Quaker Oats in one’s “billycan”…

This concern–that Amy Lowell will influence the decline of Modern poetry in America even as she has helped to elevate in England, fades into yet another reverie about war’s end. A popular topic, this winter:

I am back for “a rest”, having shed no blood of my own or anyone else’s, save when I gashed my thumb on a bullybeef tin. And poor May Sinclair will go on thinking I’m an ’eroe”! What women have to answer for! After the war–when everything will of course be ideal–we must rendez vous in your earthly paradise & idle long days in sun and long grass… I desire my Horatian otium cum dignitate [leisure with dignity] just as much as ever. If I get back you will not find me a rampagious & lustful legionary, but the same apostle of pastoral culture as of old. Old books, old wine, old pictures–young women & young songs…

Well, I will conclude this empty raving…

Au revoir, old lad, & a hundred congratulations on your fine piece of work.


“Empty raving,” quotha? Naturally, but this is something a man–a ponderous master like Ford Madox Hueffer–could do with a lighter sort of brio, especially if he is behind the likes of drunken junior Modernist officer cadets like Manning…

Attd. IX Welch, No. 6, 1.B.D.
B.E.F., France

I very ungraciously didn’t answer yr. letter–wh. reached me in the far South. However, I was lazy there–where the Mediterranean spurts up into the rosemary and lavender. But this is the bare, cold & trampled North, with nothing
but khaki for miles & miles…Bare downs… & tents… & wet valleys… & tents…& AAC guns… & mud… & bare
downs…& huts…& bare downs…& RFC…& mud…& motor lorries… & mud… & bare downs.

And I am promoted to Adj.–& run a Bn. much as I used to run the Eng[lish] Rev[iew]–It’s the same frame of mind, you know, & much, much easier–or more difficult, according to one’s mood…

Surely this great literary effort must in effect be some sort of preamble?

I want to ask you a favour: I somehow pine to publish a vol. of poems before the war ends or I am killed. Cd. you, do you think?, arrange for someone to publish:

The Old Houses
Two or three poems written in the trenches & other nasty places
& Heaven

in one volume? And could you collect and arrange them, somewhat in that order?

…I fancy it wd. make a pretty good volume. I have got rather a good one written to the dead of the Welch Regt & so on…. Let me know?

I do admire yr. work very much–you know. “Cadences” is an ever so beautiful volume.

And here’s the funny bit. “I admire your work very much.” Enough to schlepp it? Surely yes? You are, after all, an officer, with a servant, who hasn’t been in trenches in months, you must have trunks of books…

I gave it to some people in Mentone–not because I.did not value the gift, but because it wd. spread yr. fame a little–& because in my valise here it wd. only disintegrate amongst revolvers & straps & the mud in wh. one lives.

Goodbye, my dear.

I am personally very happy in this sort of life: in the end it suits me better to write:

“O.C. Canadaous will detail a fatigue party of 1 NCO & 10 men at 4:30 a.m…” than to watch the Mediterranean foam spattering over rosemary and lavender–for I don’t believe I am really, really Highbrow–as you truly are.

But God bless you, all the same…[4]


References and Footnotes

  1. Liddiard, ed., 89-90.
  2. See Moorcroft Wilson, Isaac Rosenberg, ch. 18.
  3. E.G. Blast, tied to various writers we read here, including Ford, below; and the newer Wheels, featuring the Sitwells and other Grenadier Guardsmen, several Imagist Anthologies... and yes, there are also people like Pound and Eliot being published, somewhere, presumably...
  4. Imagist Dialogues, 182-6.

Robert Graves Informs Robert Nichols; Siegfried Sassoon Closes Another Loop; Ford Madox Hueffer Hymns the High-Life; Olaf Stapledon and Agnes Miller on a Live Wire and Mr. Britling; Richard Aldington Tells Off and Tells a Joke

February, it seems, will rival January as a cold and miserable month that nonetheless provides a great deal of interesting war writing. Poets writing to other poets! Poets reading original acenturyback sources! Tall tales of the troops that are actually funny! More Mr. Britling! Scabrous poets lashing out at all the other poets they can name!

The first piece of… several… today, comes from Robert Graves to his new friend Robert Nichols. Nichols is out of the war, we may recall, and has flatteringly asked Graves–with tongue-in-cheek preciousness–to inspire his poetry by “feeding my faun with cherries.”

2 February 1917

My dear Robert,

What a ripping letter! I wrote you one a day or two ago and though it’s a bad habit I must write another. You’re lucky, to be able to be so happy in England: I couldn’t while the war lasts…

A friendly letter, or a critical one? Mostly the former. With Graves it’s always possible that what might seem like a sharp reference to the experiential gulf–“you’re a civilian now, friend, oh-so-happy in England, while I’m a soldier”–is merely careless, and it certainly seems as if he is otherwise enthusiastic about this new relationship.

Next, Graves ups the ante by writing Nichols not prosy notes to inspire his poetry but rather a poem of his own. This is the revised version of the draft poem “To Robert Nichols” that made up much of today’s letter:

Here by a snowbound river
In scrapen holes we shiver,
And like old bitterns we
Boom to you plaintively:
Robert how can I rhyme
Verses for your desire—
Sleek fauns and cherry-time,
Vague music and green trees,
Hot sun and gentle breeze,
England in June attire,
And life born young again,
For your gay goatish brute
Drunk with warm melody
Singing on beds of thyme
With red and rolling eye,
All the Devonian plain,
Lips dark with juicy stain,
Ears hung with bobbing fruit?
Why should I keep him time?
Why in this cold and rime,
Where even to dream is pain?
No, Robert, there’s no reason:
Cherries are out of season,
Ice grips at branch and root,
And singing birds are mute.

Next, Graves presumes to preach to Nichols, affecting a frank, hale-fellow voice to knock (fairly, however) Nichols’s rather old-fashioned approach. We are Sorley‘s children, now, Robert!

Look here, Robert; I’ll risk your being annoyed, if you are you’d be no friend of mine, but nowadays one doesn’t ‘view the constellations quietly, quietly burning’, at least not after one’s left school. ‘Moral austerity’? Sorley talks of the spiky stars that shine: less luxuriant, sharper, more effective.

Call me a grandmother: I like being ragged. But oh, Robert, you’ve got all the qualities of a poet if you want, and it seems such a rotten stunt for you to sit in a kimono to view constellations quietly, quietly burning, and read Bridges. You want to get away from all that into a new method…

I don’t apologize for this. I mean it and I feel Somme trenches give me the right even to blasphemy of the Holy Spirit if I feel so inclined.

Yours affectionately


Well, there you have it, quite openly in that last paragraph. There are many bases for asserting authority in poetry. But in war poetry, there is one only–experience. Having fought in “the Somme trenches,” Graves can criticize without restraint all poetry up to and including that which is divinely inspired… and his humorous hyperbole only half-covers the fact that he is less-than-half joking.


Siegfried Sassoon, left behind in Litherland Camp and not party to this new poetic friendship, is moping about and reading. ah, but who? One young but old-fashioned poet, and one fallen soldier–each of them one of our sources. Or, rather, one of them a source I came to late in his lie=fe and should have used more, and the other more of a source-to-come.

February 2

And now reading Charles Lister‘s letters in the hut and feeling deadly tired and depressed. I suppose I’ll worry along somehow in France. How, I don’t quite know.

Wilfrid Gibson’s new poems arrived today. He seems to be laying himself out to be a sort of Crabbe (modernised on Masefield Lines). Some of it is very good, but diffuse…

Charles Lister, another of the well-born young men who swarmed into the Royal Naval Division at the start of the war, was a friend of Patrick Shaw-Stewart and Rupert Brooke, and the third of the “Argonauts” to die. Lister’s father published his son’s letters, and while these will not have anything like the influence of Charles Sorley on the younger poets, it is another early case of a feedback loop.

Sassoon is reading one of the books we might read (and have read a bit of) in order to understand the experience of the war. His writing of his own life, therefore–not just in the memoir but in the near-“real-time” of his diary–is now influenced by Great War life-writing.

To reverse chronological course and restore our sense of future-mastery, I’ll note that it’s also interesting that he’s reading Wilfrid Gibson, who is most definitely a Georgian poet, but not–not yet–a war poet. But he will be. Although this project has seen numerous young men accepted despite severe vision problems, Gibson, already in his late thirties when the war broke out, was several times refused when he attempted to volunteer. But 1917 will bring increasing demands for men, and, accordingly, a loosening of such restrictions… so even as Sassoon reads the words of an Edwardian young man now long dead, he is reading the diffuse Georgian poetry of a poet who will soon know war.


Some weeks ago we dispatched the ailing Ford Madox Hueffer to the south of France. Another one of those hospital nightmares? Oh no, my friends!

…we had lived like gentlemen. A peeress of untellable wealth and inexhaustible benevolence had taken, for us alone, all the Hôtel Cap Martin [in Menton, on the French Riviera]–staff, kitchens, chef, wine-cellars. We sat at little tables in fantastically palmed and flowering rooms and looked, from the shadows of marble walls, over a Mediterranean that blazed in the winter sunlight. We ate Tournedos Meyerbeer and drank Château Pavie, 1906. We slept in royal suites… You looked round and remembered for a second that we were all being fattened for slaughter… But we had endless automobiles at our disposal and Monte Carlo was round the corner.

Yes, fattened for the slaughter–perhaps. But having pushed hard to see actual service in France, Ford is now hoping to escape the trenches, and one imagines that others who have gotten as far as the Riviera will as well. But surely not all.

There is so much to comment on, here–and letters to go before we sleep–but let’s try to register three critical touches.

First, it’s safe to say that Ford’s gambling in Monte Carlo–he won steadily using a mathematical system devised by a brilliant friend, then got bored and gambled it away again–alongside various eccentric aristocrats puts Sassoon’s fox hunting and golf to shame as an activity unbecoming an officer who is supposed to be disabled…

Second, a comparison to George Coppard‘s birthday memory is illuminating. For an enlisted man to land at an English aristocrat’s hospital where he will be pampered for a few weeks and given free cigarettes is “dead lucky;” but for an officer and high-liver like Hueffer/Ford to be moved to a similar admission–“untellable… inexhaustible… fantastically”–it takes Monte Carlo, succulent meats, fine Bordeaux, and endless automobiles…

Third, Ford is a bit of a genius. He will write the one and only High Modernist masterpiece dealing with the war, but that, in many ways, sprung fully-formed out of his possibly exaggerated shell shock and (other) modernist commitments. As this scrap of memoir makes clear, he might have been considered instead the forerunner of the realist-absurd World War Two style, or even of Post-Modernism in its beautiful chaos phase. By which I mean Heller, and then Pynchon–who else? If some of Ford’s descriptions recall the earnest efforts of Milo Minderbinder, this transition from French beachfront merriment to hard-edged despair is something that Tyrone Slothrop might have experienced (Ford would have added a trained octopus and mysterious femme fatale if he had known he could get away with it):

…On the 2nd of February, 1917 I had stood on that platform. There had been an icy wind and snow falling. I was going up the line again. If you have asked me then whether I felt despair I should have denied it–mildly. I had been conscious of being dull and numbed in a dull, numb station. All France up to Hazebrouck in Flanders was deep in snow. I was going to Hazebrouck in Flanders.[2]


But back to earth, now, with an unlikely pair: young lovers whose warrior half is not a warrior but a pacifist medic, firmly rooted in his dreams of the stars. Half a world away, today, a century back, Olaf Stapledon and Agnes Miller wrote to each other. I don’t often include much from Agnes’s letters–they tell of civilian life in Australia, and often engage Olaf in philosophical discussion–but today her question (ought America to join the war?) brings in the text-of-the-moment:

…there was a little paragraph in Wells’ book “Mr. Britling Sees It Through” which made me want America not to fight. It was where the young American explained that his country will betray her trust if she allowed herself to be drawn into war. He said America was the field for humanity to make a fresh start in, to turn over a new leaf, & it would be wrong got her to go back to the old lines. Do you think that?

Up until a few weeks ago. Oh, apologies–she was asking Olaf.

It would seem that although Olaf and Agnes are half a world away, they are on the same side of that generational gap, the biggest stumbling block on the approach to the experiential gulf. Never has Agnes Miller sounded so much like Vera Brittain (the Vera Brittain of 1914 and 1915).

Have you read “Mr. Britling” yet? I want to read it again to myself. We are going to discuss it at one of the Seekers meetings this year. Hugh’s letters made me cry. Dad said after reading one very harrowing one, “Well, it’s quite understandable that the men themselves wouldn’t see beyond their own trenches. They wouldn’t take a broad view.”–& I wanted to burst out indignantly, “No & why should they? Poor men! Why should anyone see beyond all the filth of it. They were not meant to, war is not the right way. It’s all a hideous madness.”–but I couldn’t have said anything without bursting into tears, so I said naught.

And Olaf, who will receive this letter in a month or two, is writing to Agnes about a book he is reading,

about feminism and marriage and love and the evolution of a nobler kind of society. The point of it all is really very simple, namely that women… must become free & independent economically and spiritually.

The world could do with more such. But he’s not here because he’s a good lad and a conscientious liberal–he’s here because he’s a good writer. Here’s a lovely metaphor:

Dear, you know how an electric wire conveys a current, and how if the current is too strong for it the wire fuses–goes white hot and breaks. Well, all this poor letter writing business is our electric wire, and it is too thin a wire for the current of understanding and sympathy and love that has to pass along it, that must pass along… When we meet, girl, there will be such a lot to learn of one another… The best thing I have learnt in these years of war is the sense of the supreme worth of sincerity in human thoughts and feelings…[3]


It’s been a long day and this is perhaps too much, but in guilt–or righteous concession–over the extent to which my dislike for Richard Aldington‘s personality and fiction informs my reading of his letters, I must include this one (to F.S. Flint, as usual). Aldington is certainly warming to the task:

My brave,

I fear my letter worried & annoyed you–but you must permit me a “grouch” occasionally. “The flesh is sad, alas”–& I have no books to read. Sometimes I wish you were here. One can “wag the beard” quite freely while working & we could discuss cadence & quantity & rhythm to the sound of pick and shovel…

So the weather is cold with you? Imagine! Here it is subtropical. We live on iced champagne & salads. The R.F.A. wear nothing but their trousers & socks. It is reported that the R.S.F. have abandoned all clothing except Japanese
umbrellas & fans.

The amazing thing is that in spite of the heat my shaving and tooth brushes are stiff with ice each morning. I have to thaw my towel before it will bend, the jam in tins is covered with a “crust” of ice &…but why continue? You think I
exaggerate? Come & see!

A yarn. Quidam barbarus–a certain Hun, taken prisoner at X on the 11th of Z was asked by a Tommy how long the
war would last. “Two years more,” quoth Fritz, “then we beat you with the bayonet. You’ll only need one ship to take your lot back then.” “Ho,” said our compatriot in wrath “and your blankety blank lot’ll go ’ome in a copulating perambulator.”

This was told me by one who vowed he’d seen it. No doubt the yarn appeared last June in the Journal & last
Saturday in The Evening Standard, but it’s new to me & maybe to you. I hope you’re edified.

See, that’s funny. And the joke requires three participants: the German stooge; the earthy lower-class Briton, profane but, on his best behavior, searching for euphemism; and the well-bred ear, there to appreciate the word-substitution (which was not a new necessity among those who frequently salted their speech with the earthy latrinogrammatic first-resorts represented by “copulating,” but seems to still give a frisson to the middle classes) as well as the metrical superabundance that makes “copulating perambulator” such a joy to find in a sentence that could have been, in a less eloquent age, “screw you, buddy.”

Finally, Aldington, for all that he is an enlisted laborer, now, is a very productive writer, and not only of letters. I’ve already excised about ten literary name-drops from this one, but it now becomes clear what Aldington is up to:

I wrote an article in malicious mood on modern English poetry in which I abused decisively & praised ironically some score of our villainous pundits of the pen. Still it was a poor affair–I lack verve & venom…

What do you think? A new Dunciad in prose with Abercrombie & Kipling & all that lousy crew round Monro elegantly dished and derided.

Perhaps this is what Aldington currently believes that his lowly stance in a copulating navvying unit might help him achieve: it’s a good crouch from which to chuck heavy objects at the marble busts atop the world of poetry. Kipling, popular master of the waning empire; Abercrombie, the reigning Georgian; and Harold Monro as the portfolio-holder for the rising-unmoderns.

Or he just wants to heap invective on a major modernist who has criticized–and critically!–Aldington’s recent translations from the Greek:

…a propos, that fatted imbecile of destruction, Eliot… Slay me this imbecile with a note to ’Arriet. “The Greeks put intelligence on their tombstones” quotha. Many, and the Yanks cannot even get it into the periodicals of their intellectual élite. Consult H.D. and use information and indignation here supplied to expose this festering lunatic, this bunion on the souls of Pound, this comPound [sic], this insult to God!

If you need it borrow some money from H.D. She usually gets a “check” about the 10th” of the month. Call

Cheer up! Why I may be blown to bits to-morrow. Then you can write my biography.


Well, he sounds like he’s having a good time…


References and Footnotes

  1. In Broken Images, 65-66.
  2. War Prose, 65-7.
  3. Talking Across the World, 203-4.
  4. Imagist Dialogues, 180-2.

Edward Thomas Sails for France; Dorothie Feilding Laid Low by Winter at Last; Edmund Blunden Astonied at Ypres; D.H. Lawrence Repays in Kind; Richard Aldington: Pioneer, Bibliophile, Dreamer

We have the departure of Edward Thomas and updates from a new soldier and an increasingly experienced officer in France, today, a century back, but first, from Belgium, a post-script to Dorothie Feilding‘s winter’s tale of frigid woe. She is a past master of the letter-of-comically-deflated-complaint:

29th Jan 17
Mother dear–

My fingers are frozen absolutely stiff & I cannot write you a sparkling letter in consequence for I am much too cross.

All the canals here are frozen the most amazing thickness & I go sliding in the evenings when we come in, until the ends of my toes are all blistered.

I shall have to give over for a day or two. It annoys me when I slide 10 yds & sit down hard to see a tiny Flam in vast sabots slide some 500 yds all out.

Lots of love


Edward Thomas acquired his blisters in more conventional fashion, visiting his youngest child one last time, in borrowed shoes. Now his road leads straight to France, via Southampton and the Mona Queen.

Up at 5. Very cold. Off at 6.30, men marching in frosty dark to the station singing ‘Pack up your troubles in your old kit-bag’. The rotten song in the still dark brought one tear… Southampton at 9.30 and there had to wait till dusk, walking up and down, watching ice-scattered water, gulls and dark wood beyond, or London Scottish playing improvised Rugger, or men dancing to concertina, in a great shed between railway and water… sailed at 7… I’m in 2nd officer’s cabin with Capt. and Horton, the men outside laughing and joking and saying fucking… Remember the entirely serious and decorous writing in urinal whitewash–name, address, unit, and date of sailing. A tumbling crossing, but rested.[2]

“Remember–” so the diary as well as the letters will serve as an aide-memoire to future writing.


Edmund Blunden is an old soldier by now, but almost all of his service has been on the Somme. Today, a century back, was his first acquaintance with Ypres, the great ruined city (large medieval town, that is) of the northern part of the British sector.

The battalion, being relieved from Potijze breastworks, occupied various billets of less or more insecurity in Ypres. Though many cellars existed in the town, most of them were battered in and waterlogged, and the Ramparts were overcrowded. Our principal shelter was the Convent, now the husk of a building, but concealing a many-chambered underground lodging for a considerable number of men, who might parade for working or carrying parties in its courtyard; that cobbled yard will ever be to me the stage on which Maycock stands glaring at the round white moon, and shaking his fist at her, and crying: “It’s that bloody old witch — until she changes we’ll keep being frozen.” At one corner was the entrance to a garden the paths of which had been adorned by some patient enthusiasts of the autumn before with their regimental badges done in coloured glass; and passing that way, as one would do, one had the choice of admiring their workmanship, or the sweet simplicity of the pigeons curving and glinting round the Cathedral’s tattered tower, or the fact that the German gunners were shooting high explosive to burst in the air innocuously round that aiming-mark of theirs.

Over the sepulchral, catacombed city airplanes flew and fought in the cold winter sun. Sentries blew their whistles in warning from broken archways; the brass shell cases used for gas gongs gleamed with a meaning beside them; and all of a sudden flights of shells came sliding into the town. Few people were seen on the streets, and it is difficult to recall in realistic sensation one’s compulsory walks in Ypres. The flimsy red post office, a blue poster for Sunlight Zeep, a similar advertisement for Singer’s Naaimaschinen, the noble fragment of a gateway to St. Martin’s Cathedral, interior walls with paintings of swans on green ponds, the rusty mass of ironware belonging to some small factory with an undestroyed chimney, ancient church music nobly inscribed on noble parchment, wicker chairs in the roadway outside St. Jacques, a scaffolded white building in the Place (the relic of a soon disillusioned optimist), a pinnacle, a railing, a gilded ceiling — those details one received, but without vivacity. One set out to arrive at a destination in Ypres, and even in quiet times one was not quiet. As if by some fantastic dream, the flush and abundance of life and memorial and achievement, such as blend into the great spirit harmony of the cities in that part of Europe, stole suddenly and faintly over the mind; then departed. This city had been like St. Omer, like Amiens. How obvious, and how impossible![3]


Before we get to Richard Aldington, we observe an oblique crossing of paths. Not long ago, on the same day an accused coward was shot, an accused pacifist defended himself. Today, a century back, D.H. Lawrence wrote again to Eddie Marsh, central node of all literary favor-asking. And look whose poetry he compliments in the post-script…

Monday 29 Jan. 1917

Thank you very much for your note and the green form. I hope they will let us go away.

Have I showed any public pacifist activity? …At any rate I am not a pacifist.

I have come to the conclusion that mankind is not one web and fabric, with one common being. That veil is rent for me. I know that for those who make war, war is undeniably right, it is even their vindication of their being. I know also, that for me, war, at least this war, is utterly wrong, a ghastly and unthinkable falsity. And there it is. One’s old great belief in the oneness and wholeness of humanity is torn clean across, for ever…

Well, amen to that. But note the rather more limited place to which the broad statement leads:

So how should I be a pacifist? I can only feel that every man must fulfil his own activity, however contrary
and nullifying it may be to mine.

Duckworth refused the novel…

Aha. But Marsh has apparently provided with a form that may enable emigration. What does he get in return?

I am getting ready another book of poems. My last and best. Perhaps I shall never have another book of poems to publish: or at least, for many years. Would you like to see this MS., when I have done it? Then, if there should happen to be anything you would like for Georgian Poetry, ever, you can take it. . . .

If I go to America, and can make any money, I shall give you back what you lent me. I do not forget it.

D. H. Lawrence.

P.S. Don’t you think H.D.—Mrs. Aldington—writes some good poetry? I do—really very good.’[4]

She does. And what about the man who cheated on her not long after a miscarriage, but then generously suggested that his friend might procure for her while he was at the wars? Mr. Aldington writes again to F.S. Flint:

29′” January 1917

My good, (to be as French as we can!),

I have well receive [sic] your letter so fair and blackguardly… It’s no good! I need the fantasies of language of Huysmans & Rabelais to write well in a letter. I can’t handle the epistolary style in English somehow.

…Dear boy, oh for one hour in either of our dens, with books & wine & smokes and the talk half French, half English, rolling from the latest Parisian poetaster to Meleager & from Marinetti to Folgore da San Gemignano!

Apropos, H.D. has sent Bubb my translation of Folgore–the best Italian work I’ve done – as well as the Konallis poems. So with the Imagist anthology & a possible small collection of prose poems, 1917 won’t be altogether a blank for me. Every day in which one begins nothing, every year in which one publishes nothing, is lost! How I yearn for the dear, musty smell of old vellum & the crisp rustle–like unto banknotes, yet how much more precious!–of those unreadable Aldines I collected with such gusto…

When oh when this armed strife is o’er I shall retire to Rome for a season, grow hyacinths in my shrapnel helmet–which I intend to purchase or abduct as a “souveneet” [s/c]–and mess about in the Vatican library. Also wander about that city with H.D. whose gusto for antiquities fits in gloriously with mine. There is a little church on the Aventine, dedicated to Santa Sabina, where I hope to sit one whole morning & listen to the silence. It has some fine Byzantine mosaics if I remember rightly, but hang them! Can you imagine the pleasure of listening to the silence, while the sunlight runs over the worn flag stones? What a place to think in! Perhaps you will abandon respectability & a government job & come with me. There’s nothing like vagabondage, freedom, the arts, starving & feasting together as luck turns. Then life has a tang where it is now insipid. Then one can dream great things besides one’s best friend–you know whom I mean–& be content if the year ends with nothing done…

I don’t like Aldington–I’ve read a good deal of what he writes–and I haven’t hidden that, here. I could ding him, too, for putting on his Old Soldier airs (although, in fairness, he did much more of that in other recent letters; old soldiers don’t wax rhapsodic about old books) without realizing either that a true veteran of the trenches would be ashamed to think of buying a souvenir or that such a figure would never “abduct” but rather “win” it.

But never mind. That above paragraph is the best “après la guerre” daydream I’ve read since Graves hymned Sassoon. And Aldington is including his wife in the reverie–how nice. I wonder if the post script will explain why he talks of her so much more fondly in this letter than in letters previous…

But I should give him some impartial credit for high spirits, in a pioneer battalion, in winter. It’s clearly rooted in self-regard, but hey–morale is morale.

One’s art, looked at selfishly, is less important for what it produces for others, than for what it adds to one’s own life making things poignant & strange & beautiful where otherwise they would be “just ordinary.”

Never feel angry or grieved about me–a prophet is not without honour!–and whatever happens I have something
that cannot be destroyed. I had a talk with a fieldmouse in the trenches the other day–we got on splendidly! And there are hawks & crows & chaffinches & sparrows & owls & starlings & grey crows to look at & understand. They are so delightfully unorganised, such vagabonds! So you see I have found friends.

Au revoir, dear boy; forgive all this babble. But my mind is becoming vegetable through disuse.


P.S. I’ve forgotten your address so must send this via H.D. Couldn’t send Almanac–against regulations. Send your
poem when finished.[5]


References and Footnotes

  1. Lady Under Fire, 197.
  2. War Diary (Childhood), 157-58.
  3. Undertones of War, 144-5.
  4. A Number of People, 232.
  5. Imagist Dialogues, 173-5.

Robert Graves Triumphantly Off to War… with Mum Coming Up Behind; Siegfried Sassoon Shares with the Class; Richard Aldington Instructs the Bored Wives and Idle Poets of England

Despite the mutually supporting accounts of Graves and Sassoon eliding London from the equation, it would seem that Robert Graves left today, a century back, from Waterloo station, to which he was accompanied not by ten lecherous and naive officers but rather by his parents and an uncle. He may have been traveling light by design–an old soldier, now–but, it would seem, he traveled too light: discovering that he had left his money and papers at home in another tunic pocket, Graves sent his mother back to retrieve them, and she ended up following him to Southampton on the next train…[1]


And as for Siegfried Sassoon… no, actually, we’ll skip his diary for today, a century back. Explaining the knee-jerk anti-Semitism of the English Squirearchy–e.g. “Lieutenant X is a nasty, cheap thing. A cheap-gilt Jew. Why are such Jews born, when the soul of Jesus was so beautiful?”–is tiresome enough, and it’s heavier going when the anti-Semite in question is the scion of a famous Jewish family, the Anglican son of a father, born Jewish, who left the family. Not that he should get a pass, just that it’s a bit too complex to discuss without biographical spade work…[2]


Our other matter today is catching up with Richard Aldington, who has been writing amusing letters to F.S. Flint ever since he (Aldington) left for France at the end of December.

A letter of January 3rd begins, in typical jaunty-Francophile fashion,

Sale type,

J ’attends toujours un lettre de toi, mais cela n’arrive jamais

The letter rattles on into a surprisingly non-downhearted (for Aldington) report on his doings in the reserve areas of France. He even breaks into English–his native tongue and Flint’s–to relay the current marching songs:

Marching, marching, marching.
Always bloody well marching
From Reveille to Tat[t]oo;
When the war is over
We shall be marching still.

Aldington shares, too, the popular call and response–“Are we down-hearted?” ‘No!” “Shall we win?” “Yes!” “Shall we have a good dinner?” “No!–before admitting that they are actually eating fairly well.

The next letter, of the 13th, thanks Flint for writing to him and shares two most shocking bits of intelligence. First, Aldington has been transferred to a pioneer battalion, which one might expect to be bad news for a poet with no particular interest in manual labor. And yet:

I am really getting on quite well–am in a good battalion, get plenty of grub, not too much work, and fairly good billets. So, as the saying is. I’ve “clicked”!

And the second development?

…It is rather annoying but it appears to be an order that one must not use French in letters. That robs me of half my rhetoric & all my pornography, so you’ll only get dull letters from me. But write in French yourself…

The letter goes on to take a shot at Aldington’s poetic fellow-traveler Ezra Pound–well-deserved of course, as all shots at Pound are. But we must hasten on to today, a century back.

22nd January 1917
Dear Franky,

…By the way, you remember some time ago the Times issued a series of pamphlets for soldiers, extracts from English classics? I wish you’d get hold of some for me–I’d like something to read & chuck away.

To speak the honest truth: I worry very little about all these literary squabbles–how can one trouble in the face
of so much human misery?

Here is a real Bairnsfather incident that happened the other night. We were going through a village wh. has been absolutely battered out of existence by bombardment. We were passing what had once been a row of shops.  Everyone was tired & trudging along in silence; even the guns were silent; then a broad midland voice remarked: “Bill, business don’t see[m] to be very brisk in these parts.” Perhaps it doesn’t sound so very funny, but it seemed so to us…

Aldington’s high spirits lead him to take up the role of jocularly supportive friend. Never mind all the miserable letters he has sent Flint, wallowing in his plight as a despised conscript–he is an overseas soldier, now, and enjoying himself. He can condescend to mere civilians…

Are you writing anything? Your literary idleness is really a disgrace… For Heaven’s sake do something! Are we all to be “wash-outs”? You are too comfortable. Try sleeping on the floor with two blankets & an overcoat, or spend a frosty night in a hole in the back garden with your wife letting off Roman candles & lanthe throwing bricks at you! You might hire de Bosschere to knock a hammer rapidly on a table (like Marinetti) for a machine-gun, & if you make the hole over a drain you can wear an anti-gas helmet! That would stir you up a bit…

Oh but softly, friend Richard. You have been in France for three weeks, and never yet in the line.

In an allied but rather rarer mood of high self-confidence, the letter continues into an unlikely–or perhaps I should say Modern–passage on marriage and separation. H.D. is Aldington’s wife, the poet Hilda Doolittle:

You dear people seem tremendously far away, like demi-gods in a smoky Elysium. For the Lord’s sake don’t interrupt H.D. if she is having a good time with any one–when I said “look after H.D.” I meant help her to have a good time & not bother about me. I didn’t want to make you a kind of Argus! Take H.D. out, if you can, to theatres, & get her to meet new & amusing people. And if you can devise any sort of an “affairepour passer le temps, so much the better. She’ll be a grass widow a while longer yet..


What could go wrong?


References and Footnotes

  1. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 168.
  2. Diaries, 122-3.
  3. Imagist Dialogues, 162-173.

Marching Orders and “Leave-Taking” for Richard Aldington; Patrick Shaw-Stewart Tours Monastir

Richard Aldington is no stranger to self-dramatization. In fact he is a prodigy of the self-centered lament. But the more baroque his complaints have become about the indignities, stupidities, and excrescences of a recruit’s life in the training camps, the less we are inclined to believe that his experience is anything out of the ordinary. He’s just a good writer inclined to complain–which makes him a good complainer.

But today’s letter to F.S. Flint contains actual, solid, heavyweight news: they are off. He and one camp friend are being sent to a strange regiment in France–and they don’t know where, or even which battalion, or whether they will serve as noncoms or private soldiers. This may not be a disaster, but it’s not exactly good luck either–and yet, now that it’s happening, there’s no drama about it.

Dear Frankie,

Off to France to-morrow (Thursday) to the Leicesters. My new number 36179. I don’t know wh. battalion, so can’t tell you address. Also don’t know whether I drop the “stripe” or not–I rather fancy I do.

Look after H.D. won’t you?

Well, over we go and the best of luck.

Ever yours,

So Aldington will see the war at last, and he’s worried still about his wife. Although a one-line request to a friend is hardly indicative of careful and concerned preparation for the inevitable. Yet, like several other writers here, his poetry has served an internship, as it were, in the training camps, to learn some of the demands of war poetry. This highbrow Imagist will have to change at least some of his stripes to become a war poet–and this he seems to be doing. Sometime recently, I believe, he wrote the following poem:



Will the world still live for you
When I am gone?

Will the straight garden poppy
Still spout blood from its green throat
Before your feet?
Will the five cleft petals of the campion
Still be rose-coloured.
Like five murdered senses, for you?

Will your trees still live.
Thrust metallic bosses of leafage
From the hillside in the summer light;
Will the leaves sway and grow darker.
Rustle, swirl in the gales;
Decay into gold and orange.
Crinkle and shrivel.
And fall silently at last
On to frosty grass?
Will there be sun for you;
The line of near hills
Cut as in thin blue steel
Against red haze?

Will there be silence?

Will not even the clean acrid sea
Turn stale upon your lips?

Will the world die for you
As it dies for me?[2]


We can certainly read “you” as H.D., his wife and fellow poet. But it seems more natural to see this as a poem addressed to poetry. It’s very far from a 1914 poem–but Aldington was in the vanguard in 1914, and there is no easy solving of an equation that must reduce both war experience and artistic ideology to a single position on some line of progress.

“Leave-Taking” seems, in fact, to fit well with the slowing emerging, tentatively anti-war poetry of 1916–it expects no glory and is concerned with war’s damage. And yet it is in another sense utterly traditional, despite its unusual form: a poet about to go on a dangerous journey is worried less about the threat to himself than about the threat to his sensibility, his emotional senses, his art.


Our only other entry for today, a century back, is a humorous travelogue from a far-flung correspondent: Patrick Shaw-Stewart, still underemployed in Macedonia as a liaison to the French, does some sightseeing.


I spent a week in Monastir the other day. The chief difficulty was getting there: I tried to go by Ford car, but  (encouraged by a Serb captain) I drove straight into a lake which at one point had invaded the road, and my chauffeur, my servant, and I, had to take off practically all our clothes, tuck up our shirts under our arms, and shove first 1000 yards forward and then (as it only got deeper) turn the car by manual labour and shove about 300
yards back again, an indecent spectacle loudly cheered by the Italian army. The car having failed, I had to go that night by the French “trolley,” a small open truck propelled by a sort of motor that runs along the railway. It started at one in the morning and took about 10 hours. It was one of the coldest things I ever did: but it was fun waking up in the dawn at Ostrovo and seeing the sun hit Kaimakchalan through the mist: all the country from there on to the Monastir plain is lovely, and the greatest change from Salonica, The Frenchman, Leblois, now commanding the Army up there, was an old friend of mine and was very nice to me. I stayed there four days, and did about half the
things I wanted to. Monastir is a jolly-looking town in a lovely situation, with a liberal supply of minarets and broad, infamously cobbled streets.

Going in from the South is rather grim, dead horses and enormous shell-holes: that is the end the enemy plug, for the benefit of the station and the road. (They also plug one of the other ends for the benefit of the French artillery, and they speeded it up rather while I was there, but you couldn’t say they were exactly bombarding the town.) The
population left is about a quarter of the peace time numbers; mostly Turks, and Jews, and nearly all the women are veiled. (In contradistinction I saw one French cocotte in full panoply walking down a dilapidated street, very odd-looking.) The Jews, who have stayed to look after their shops, are very neutral; they have barred and bolted their doors heavily, and occasionally one peers through a grating; they are obviously more afraid of being pillaged by us than sacked by the enemy![3]


References and Footnotes

  1. Copp, Imagist Dialogues, 160.
  2. Copp, An Imagist at War, 65-6.
  3. Knox, Patrick Shaw-Stewart, 183-5.

Richard Aldington on the Soldier’s Lot; Rudyard Kipling’s Irish in the Mud

Today we can use to catch up with Richard Aldington, our most literary conscript–in that he’s deeply involved in foreign literature and is the only conscription-era writer we’ve been following closely…

I don’t like Aldington very much at all–he is alternately whingeing and bombastic, and his quickness to condescend to others once he was in the ranks (again, not before conscription forced his hand) is deeply unappealing to anyone who cannot help but feel an affinity for all the young writers who joined up in 1914 or 1915, and paid such a terrible price. And he’s not so great to his wife, the poet Hilda Doolittle (H.D.) For example, there is this letter of last week, a century back, to his friend F.S. Flint:

20455L/CpI. R.A.
“D” Company
44 T.R.B.
Westham camp

My dear Franky,

Your letter is so kind and affectionate–I was very happy to get it. You must know that this present trip to U.S.A. was suggested by H.D. herself, for I had not mentioned it for several weeks. She need not feel any pressure from me, though I do believe she would be more tranquil in U.S.A. But “let that rest”. If she wants to stay, she stays; whatever happens later is not my fault. The responsibility will be with her–and her advisers! You may or may not remember that 18 months [ago] I wanted to go to America… But “let that rest” too.

We shall, since I can’t pretend to know the intricacies of this relationship. What follows is interesting, in that it seems to show Aldington coming around to the life of the soldier. Or, at least, coming around to the usefulness of taking up the rhetorical position of the stout, uncomplaining Tommy. It’s not only for comic effect (e.g., “exasperates,” below):

Dear boy, your affection entirely exasperates my importance in the world! So many better men have perished in this foolish contest that I have no faintest right to claim a hope for exemption for myself. You misunderstand me a little, I think. I am not a suicide. I am a soldier, considered trained, and next week, tomorrow, I could be warned for a draft. I don’t say I shall be, but I might. And those who go out to this war run very grave risks. A man who runs those risks without being prepared to lose his life is deceiving himself, and–can’t you see?–it is not easy to die, but one makes it easier by renouncing those things which have made life dear or agreeable. To feel that you are making other people wretched by your own inconsiderable demise is a torture; and what I have done has been only an attempt to minimise the shock to the person I love most. It is not my fault that I have been misunderstood; but it won’t help me to stand knee-deep in mud under shrapnel if I knew H.D. is in an agony of apprehension in England. If she were in America, letters would be sent to her from England & she need never know I were abroad. Then any bad news might come as a shock, but without much preliminary agony; & if I came out safe, autant de gagner [at least that’s something]! As to being seen when one is ill or wounded – you ought to know that it is not easy to see a soldier in hospital & that many cases never even leave France… But, what is the use? I am only justifying what may see[m] a harsh or even cruel attitude to H.D. If I was cruel, it was from kindness.

So we haven’t let it rest, after all. It’s unkind and condescending, but there is a logic here that we should appreciate: to be in England is to be removed from the trenches by only two or three days–the postal service is still excellent. Every news item that mentions fighting in a certain general section of the line will occasion a few days of terror and anxiety, even though it contains little or no information that can actually be linked to higher risk. A soldier in the line might die any day, but to be far removed from news does enable an emotional distance from the ups and downs of a newspaper war…

And, dear boy, there are no “rights”–there are only those with power and those without power. I belong to the latter, and, I assure you, that, except for a very few personal friends, my extinction would as little trouble the world, & be as little loss, as that of my other junior N.C.O. in H.M. Army!

Cheer up, old boy; I hope to see you at Xmas,



Aldington’s next letter to Flint–which I included in due time on the 15th–is pure comedy, and worth quoting again in full:

Dear Franky,

Cheer up, you silly old bugger! We fuckers is off to the above bleedin’ hole to-morrow, and fucked if it won’t be cold. Us poor buggers has to sleep on bare floors to night, while you wallows in feathers, you old piss-tub. Well, I must fuck off, so I lays down me pen and bids you good-bye–bugger you.

T[on] A[mi]


High spirits! But this whole let’s-read-historical-experience-in-real-time-and-live-the-past-in-the-imperfect-tense project is a mug’s game. Today he’s down again:

20455 L/CpI. R.A.
“D” Company
Verne Citadel
Sat. [19“’ November 1916]

My dear lad,

I feel rather depressed to-night so you must pardon it if my letter is depressing. This is a wild desolate spot with dispiriting associations. The fortress itself is of course geometric in an ugly way and gloomy; the icy wind shoots, as if through a funnel, across the parade ground and freezes face, hands and feet until we almost weep with the pain. The barrack rooms are like a vast row of wine-cellars cut out of the ramparts: or rather in size and shape exactly the arches of a railway viaduct walled and windowed at each end. Along the back runs a long, gloomy, vaulted corridor, foul with smoke from the fires & impure air, echoing from end to end at one’s step, filthy with dust…

Am I too depressing? May I go on?

You may. This is depressing stuff, wallowing in the lot of the soldier in winter camp, in a nation still behind the curve of the modern nation-in-arms, struggling to support and train and equip its citizen army. But seldom has a writer lavished so much sharp, allusive language on the grim environs of training camp. It’s good stuff, too, a stony new twist on the theme of the eternal soldier:

Outside the fort (for from the inside one sees nothing but walls and the everlasting grey sky) there are cliffs of greyish-blue and pinkish-yellow Portland stone, rushing to the grey sea in rough waves of tumbled boulders and blocks. Everywhere there are desolate quarries, everywhere the traces of the unhappy convicts in the prison here. Useless heart-breaking toil is apparent everywhere–vast Cyclopean blocks of stone have been dragged with sweat from the living rock, chipped laboriously into shape–and then left abandoned!

If an arch is needed it is made of huge rough lumps of stone like those at Stonehenge. The effect of one arch was terrific in its rudeness, in its barbarity, its Egypt-like witness of forced slave-labour. Another was more regular, Homeric, like the gate of the tomb of Agamemnon–vast, desolate, implacable! Far below is the dismal, curdled sea, and beyond the grey, sickly greenish line of “England”: its edges lapped by a foul desolate marsh! Complete the picture by a few long, black warships at anchor, and numbers of oil-tanks along the shore and you have some idea of what the outside of Portland has to offer! It is grand and desolate, a little melodramatic if it were not so austere, so stonily toned in grey, so massive. To your impressionable friend here it was rather appalling–for, d’you know, in this great place, with its draw-bridges & walls & ramparts and ditches, one feels damnably like a prisoner! I feel horribly sympathetic towards the unfortunate convicts.

You mustn’t feel too sorry for me–my existence, after all, is less dreary and bitter than that of millions of our fellows in Europe. I have only pity for us all–but my pity explodes into hate for those imbeciles who pretend that there is
anything fine and ennobling or romantic in soldiering. It is simply dreary routine, dreary endurance, dreary “heroism” of dying at the word of command! Somehow some of us will endure to the end, but what shall we be worth? Don’t feel too many scruples at being out of it–you have a certain task (which by the way you don’t seem to be carrying out very enthusiastically!) & that is to keep alive something of the gradually enfeebled tradition of beauty in life which we have received from other times.

…I’ve written 12 poems & 3 essays since I’ve been in the Army (no swank intended!)–now produce your contribution, instead of those old “dug-ups” you sent for the next anthology!

All affectionate greetings to you, dear lad,



Speaking of both romance and the realities of soldiering, here’s a nice bit from the Old Guard to set against Aldington’s agitations.

Every Great War writer–even historians of a certain age writing from the other side of the experiential gulf–tries his hand at a “mud piece.” From Kipling‘s history of the Second Battalion, Irish Guards:

Their wholly unspeakable front line was five miles distant from this local paradise. You followed a duckboard track of sorts through Trones Wood, between ghastly Delville and the black ruins of Ginchy, and across the Ginchy ridge where the chances of trouble thickened, through a communication-trench, and thereafter into a duckboarded landscape where, if you were not very careful, the engulfing mud would add you to its increasing and matured collection of “officers and other ranks.” These accidents overcome, you would discover that the front line was mud with holes in it. If the holes were roundish they were called posts; if oblong they were trenches with names, such as Gusty Trench and Spectrum Trench. They connected with nothing except more mud. Wiring peered up in places, but whether it was your own or the enemy’s was a matter of chance and luck. The only certainty was that, beyond a point which no one could locate, because all points were wiped out by a carpet-like pattern of closely set holes, you would be shelled continuously from over the bleak horizon. Nor could you escape, because you could never move faster than a man in a nightmare. Nor dared you take cover, because the mud-holes that offered it swallowed you up.

Here, for instance, is what befell when No. 1 Company went up to relieve a grenadier company on the night of the 19th November. They started at 3 p.m. in continuous mud under steady shelling. Only three out of their four platoon guides turned up. The other had collapsed. Ten men were hit on the way up; a number of others fell out from sheer exhaustion or got stuck in the mud. The first man who set foot in the front-line trench blocked the rest for a quarter of an hour, while four of his comrades were hauling him out. This was five hours after they had begun. The two Lewis-guns and some stragglers, if men hip-deep in mud and water can straggle, were still unaccounted for. Lance-Sergeant Nolan brought them all in by hand at three in the morning under shell-fire. Then they were heavily shelled (there was hardly any rifle-fire), and three men were wounded. Luckily shells do not burst well in soft dirt. It was Private Curran’s business to shift two of them who were stretcher-cases to Battalion Headquarters one mile and a half distant. This took two relays of eight men each, always under shell-fire, and Curran’s round trip was completed in nine hours…

There was one time when a sergeant (Lucas) was buried by a shell, and a brother sergeant (Glennon) “though he knew that it meant almost certain death” went to his aid, and was instantly killed, for the enemy, naturally, had the range of their own old trenches to the inch. To be heroic at a walk is trying enough, as they know who have plowtered behind the Dead March of a dragging barrage, but to struggle, clogged from the waist down, into the white-hot circle of accurately placed destruction, sure that if you are even knocked over by a blast you will be slowly choked by mud, is something more than heroism. Equally, to lie out disabled on an horror of shifting mud is beyond the sting of Death. One of our corporals on patrol heard groaning somewhere outside the line. It proved to be a grenadier, who had lain there twenty-four hours “suffering from frost-bite and unable to move.” They saved him. Their stretcher-bearers were worn out, and what sand-bags at last arrived were inadequate for any serious defence. “We were fighting purely against mud and shells, as the German infantry gave us no trouble.” When No. 2 was relieved at the same time as No. 1 Company, they dribbled into camp by small parties from two till ten in the morning, and three of the men never turned up at all. The Somme mud told no tales till years later when the exhumation parties worked over it.[2]


References and Footnotes

  1. Imagist Dialogues, 150-4.
  2. The Irish Guards in the Great War, II, 104-5.

Coming Down from High Wood: Robert Graves is for Rouen; The Travails and Wails (and Marital Fails) of Richard Aldington (and H.D.)

The Battle of the Somme rumbles on–there have been more bloody, failed attacks at in High Wood and along the Bazentin Ridge–but today we are focused, first, on the after-effects of the recent attacks. Those of the 2nd Royal Welch who made it through physically unscathed still have their psychological injuries to deal with.

Time heals all wounds. If, that is, one takes “heal” to mean “somewhat ameliorate, often by burying below the surface, thus permitting the outward appearance of progress” and not “restore to a previous state of health.”

July 24th. …Our camp is a pleasant, restful place by a musical stream with the tones of a rocky bottom, and birches overhanging its steep verdure-clad banks. The excitable have ceased to call out in their sleep.[1]


For Robert Gravesblown up, with a large piece of shrapnel through his chest and lung, left for dead and then half-abandoned in a sweltering tent–healing will take considerably more time.

The nights of the 22nd and 23rd were very bad. Early on the morning of the 24th, when the doctor came to see how I was, I said: “You must send me away from here. The heat will kill me.” It was beating through the canvas on my head. He said: “Stick it out. It’s your best chance to lie here and not to be moved. You’d not reach the base alive.” I said: “I’d like to risk the move. I’ll be all right, you’ll see.” Half an hour later he came back. “Well, you’re having it your way. I’ve just got orders to evacuate every case in the hospital. Apparently the Guards have been in it up at Delville Wood and we’ll have them all coming in tonight.” I had no fears now about dying. I was content to be wounded and on the way home.

I had been given news of the battalion from a brigade-major, wounded in the leg, who was in the next bed to me. He looked at my label and said: “I see you’re in the Second Royal Welch Fusiliers. Well, I saw your High Wood show through field-glasses. The way your battalion shook out into artillery formation, company by company — with each section of four or five men in file at fifty yards interval and distance — going down into the hollow and up the slope through the barrage, was the most beautiful bit of parade-ground drill I’ve ever seen. Your company officers must have been superb.” I happened to know that one company at least had started without a single officer. I asked him whether they had held the wood. He said: “They hung on at the near end. I believe what happened was that the Public Schools Battalion came away as soon as it got dark; and so did the Scotsmen. Your chaps were left there alone for some time. They steadied themselves by singing. Later, the chaplain — R.C. of course — Father McCabe, brought the Scotsmen back. They were Glasgow Catholics and would follow a priest where they wouldn’t follow an officer. The middle of the wood was impossible for either the Germans or your fellows to hold. There was a terrific concentration of artillery on it. The trees were splintered to matchwood. Late that night the survivors were relieved by a brigade of the Seventh Division; your First Battalion was in it.”

This, I hasten to add, is from the earliest version of Graves’s memoir. I had better hasten, because even the gleefully loose-with-the-truth Graves bestirred himself to correct this passage. A later edition adds a paragraph beginning “This was not altogether accurate.” It turns out that some of the Public Schools Battalion held on and fought tenaciously. But he does stick to the report of the Glaswegians legging it until a priest brings them back–Graves’s only correction there is to his name: it was Father McShane.[2]

That evening I was put in the hospital train. They could not lift me from the stretcher to put me on a bunk, for fear of starting hemorrhage in the lung; so they laid the stretcher on top of it, with the handles resting on the head-rail and foot-rail. I had been on the same stretcher since I was wounded. I remember the journey only as a nightmare.

My back was sagging, and I could not raise my knees to relieve the cramp because the bunk above me was only a few inches away. A German officer on the other side of the carriage groaned and wept unceasingly. He had been in an aeroplane crash and had a compound fracture of the leg. The other wounded men were cursing him and telling him to stow it and be a man, but he went on, keeping every one awake. He was not delirious, only frightened and in great pain. An orderly gave me a pencil and paper and I wrote home to say that I was wounded but all right. This was July 24th, my twenty-first birthday, and it was on this day, when I arrived at Rouen, that my death officially occurred.[3]

Unfortunately, Graves, having lost a day in delirium, dated that letter July 23rd,[4] which made it appear to have been written before his official demise…

And then, today, a century back, the first news of Graves’s wounding reached his parents, in Wimbledon. A letter, written a few days earlier, seems to have reported Graves as being badly wounded, perhaps killed, in action. Robert’s father Alfred Perceval Graves “at once went into town” and started working both the bureaucracy and his connections in various ministries, trying to learn more of his son’s fate.[5]

There is a painful parallel, here, between the limbo and physical pain of the badly wounded man and the jumble of misinformation, that no-man’s-land between grief and anxiety into which his parents are now plunged. And of course it can stand for the cruelty of impersonal bureaucracy amidst war’s chaos, but this is not quite fair: the battle itself was badly planned and poorly carried out, but the postal service and the system of dual notification (usually a War Office Telegram followed by more detailed letters from surviving officers) generally function well, considering the enormous size and confusion of the Somme. Still, it will be an awful few days between life and death…


I have been awaiting something of an opportunity to catch up on Richard Aldington‘s experiences in training. This is not much of one, but I’ll take it, not least because his carping shows up so poorly against the actual sufferings of an early war volunteer who has lived the trenches and faced the guns.

Aldington was a married man, and, though only just twenty-four, no youthful Public Schools military enthusiast. He was committed to Modernism, to publishing, to literature, to making something of himself as a writer. So he was very not-eager-to-go, and in fact he waited for conscription.[6] This puts him in with a different sort of mob, so to speak. His letters to F. S. Flint have been full of lamentation.

In late June, writing in French (he and Flint are both native-English-speakers, but perhaps French offers privacy) Aldington, quite new to training camp life, sidled up to the fainting couch. Which is always a good position from which to enfilade with some cutting observations:

Here I am in a “gun-fodder” regiment! We will be at the front in two weeks…  Don’t be ashamed–I am delighted to learn you will be exempted–your physique won’t be able to elude this vile trade. My dear friend, I have been very sad, and the sight of your handwriting brought a lump to my throat. There’s nothing to be done. I’m in it; let’s hope for a not too serious wound, but enough of that!

Already longing for a blighty one. By the 10th of July, when other British men were suffering too, new horrors have been visited upon his own wretched frame. Also, hilarious comeuppance for the affectation of corresponding in French:

Dear boy,

If I haven’t written to you it is only due to inoculation, vaccination and general exploitation. I am on the go from
5.30 a.m. to 7 p.m. and have only time for one note as a rule & that goes to H.D.[7] I want to hear from you though & will do all I can to write. I’ll send you some yarns which will show you the bloodiness of this business.

When you write, don’t send postcards in French–if it hadn’t been for a Q.M.S. here, who is a schoolmaster, I
should have been in the guard-room under suspicion of being a Hun, just through your innocent p.c.!

O God, O Montreal!’[8]

Thine R.

The next letter finds Aldington very low indeed. I will mention with restrained schadenfreude that this is in part revealed, as his editor notes, by how terrible his French gets… but Aldington has been granted the mercy of re-translation into decent English:

My dear fellow,

Would you be so good as to send me the following two books: “Infantry Training…” and “Musketry Regulations…”

Be quick, my only chance is to earn a lance corporal’s stripe! Then I can work things so as to stay here, but you
have to know everything thoroughly. Yes, I know you will help me in this effort… It’s damned tough, this soldiering life, I can assure you. It exceeds my worst fears and I’m only just starting. It gets harder from week to week. But I try to keep my spirits up, but I have a terrible lump in my throat when I think of my poor wife. I can’t hide everything from her, but I try not to tell her my troubles and my despair.

You see, my ears have been crushed by my straw-filled pillowcase, so much so that the tops of my ears are covered with little wounds–I fear their shape will be ruined. My feet are blackened and swollen by the heavy boots you have to wear. My hands are quite bruised and dirtied by the filthy tasks that have to be done. For example, for a fatigue I had to…clean the stone floor in the kitchen of the Officers’ Mess. It was so filthy that it made me retch. It was disgusting. But that’s enough of that! Another good sign. Yesterday I had to do an hour of punishment drill, because two other men in my squad didn’t know their duties, having been ill for a week!

That may seem something quite trivial. But think. Our day runs from 5.30 a.m. to 4.30 p.m almost without a moment’s rest. Now one hour of work from 5.30 to 6.30 is exhausting, without saying that that leaves no time for writing a letter, having a bath, or otherwise refreshing the mind. Perhaps I seem to be whining…


…but it is made up of tiny things, things important enough to ruin your whole life. The men’s language is obscene and offensive; the N.C.O.s are vile types who take it out on the recruits for the insults received from their superiors, and so on. The English army consists wholly of […]!

One point–harsh though it is, I think some of his comrades would elbow-in here to make it–is that he’s not exactly a recruit: he’s a conscript.

I’m writing you this mixture of bad French in the din of the barrack-room. There are some men arguing, others filling their suitcases, others laughing with a stupid laugh, a hellish laugh, others cleaning their clothes, and two or three like me trying to write.

My friend, write, write poems. “Let us not allow the tradition of free spirits to die”. For the time being I am finished. Now  it’s up to you to carry on. Send me everything you write. I want to remember that I dreamed of being a poet.
Your R.

Another letter repeated the request for musketry (i.e. rifle-shooting) books, as Aldington tries to make the best of his situation. But a relief from misery came from another quarter.

Yesterday, a century back, Aldington’s wife, the poet Hilda Doolittle (i.e. “H.D.”) moved to be near his camp at Wareham. Their relationship has been under terrible stress already and Aldington has wandered, so this constitutes something of a gamble, a doubling-down on an evil-looking hand.

But in the short term, at least, it brings relief. First, H.D. to F.S. Flint:

Monday [24th July 1916]

Dear Frankie–I saw R. yesterday afternoon. He spoke of you so tenderly–of the letters & books you sent & that you offered to lend him money. R. has changed superficially in to the “nice, clean young Englishman” type–he looks so much of a “gentleman” in his Tommy clothes that his chief joy at present is strolling calmly along with me and watching his brother Tommies as they draw near, prepare for the salute! Consternation and surprise! Another joy is the ironical one of seeing the real officers sneak out of the mess or talk in an unconcerned (pseudo) manner about Rupert Brook [sic]while he, (R.A.) enters with a bucket & scrub-brush to clean the 30 window-panes!

Well, seeing how his wife belittles him to his friend, I do now feel a bit bad. But perhaps this is comedy intended to lighten a dark mood? The letter continues:

Frankie–this is the outside–the other is hard to face–the tragic eyes of Richard–the absolute foredoomed look. I am desperate–but I say to myself “be strong for the sake of the others–for Richard’s sake.” I want to go on with my work, with Richard’s work!

Do what you can to help him now:–Write, if only a P.C., say every other day. Do not tax yourself–but R.’s days are weeks to him & it seems a long time between posts. Just write silly, cheerful superficial anythings–he finds comfort  in the fact that you care for him. I feel so weak in the face of all this startling & horrible Hell! But don’t think I give way when R. is with me!–Only Frankie, I want to feel your courage to buck up mine…

And this is Aldington to Flint, also today, a century back. His French has improved:

My dear fellow,

You are the most generous of friends. This is so delightful. The little book arrived safely and I have drawn some
important information from it. It’s just what I needed. Once again, my thanks.

I saw my wife yesterday–we were deeply affected, both sad and happy at the same time. It’s fiendishly difficult to leave her at eight o’clock to come back to this dirty hut full of fellows swearing and speaking in the most idiotic and obscene manner.

Very temporary relief, then:

This army life is stupid, boring and demoralising. The young ones learn to drink, and fornicate with disgusting whores–the old ones quickly become animals with an obscene tongue. It’s the idiotic obscenity of these poor blighters–many of whom will be dead within a few months–that sickens me most. In all truth humanity is something disgusting. When I think about it I want to die. We are, we live in a low and banal epoch. War is a bloody farce. Down with–for ever and ever–this greedy, stupid and malicious society. We literary hacks, we are lost in the mud. By the way – send me, if you can, the cuttings of the American press that speak of us. I received a small cutting
from L’Intransigeant which speaks of my mobilisation!

Well, dear friend. I’m going to clean this never-ending succession of brass buttons and stupid things. This is how one’s leisure time has to be spent.

My grateful thanks! Write to me, when you can…[9]

Why this lengthy journey through the mind of a somewhat delicate literary type, wallowing in the misery of barracks life? Well, it does give another angle on Great War experience and show us, if through the eyes of a bitter man, how conscript life in 1916 differs from the often-upbeat camp life of Kitchener’s Army in 1915. But it also will inform his book. Of the hero of Death of a Hero, Aldington will write that

It was not the physical fatigue Winterbourne minded… He suffered mentally; suffered from the shock of the abrupt change from surroundings where the things of the mind chiefly were valued, to surroundings where they were ignorantly despised.[10]


References and Footnotes

  1. The War the Infantry Knew, 243.
  2. This is far from the only report of Roman Catholic chaplains going forward to restore the morale of broken troops.
  3. Good-Bye to All That, 220-3.
  4. This originally read "August 23rd," my error.
  5. R. P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 155-7. Irritatingly, R.P. Graves (nephew of Robert, and biographer) conceals a problem with the dating here. Alfred's diary records receiving a letter today, but it's not clear, in R.P. Graves's quotation, from whom. R.P. Graves makes it seem as if this is Robert's letter penciled with the orderly's help, but that can hardly be the case. Even if Robert is mistaken about the dates, and sent a letter a day or two ago, it would not have reached Wimbledon so quickly. (Two days is just possible, I suppose).  But R.P. Graves elides the date given in Good-Bye to All That, implying that it is the same letter without explaining where the confusion could be.
  6. Yes, perhaps my disdain for Aldington has been influenced by the sufferings of the eager volunteers, especially those who, like Charles Sorley, were undeluded about what they had chosen. I don't mean to behave out of some osmotic snobbery--it is Aldington's non-stop complaining to which I want to attribute my dislike of him. That and his writing...
  7. His wife, the Modernist artist formerly known as Hilda Doolittle.
  8. A reference to a rather amusing--and appropriately, knowingly fainting-snobbish--comic verse by Samuel Butler.
  9. Imagist Dialogues, 127-36.
  10. Whelpton, Richard Aldington, Poet, Soldier and Lover, 127-8.